If you talk to theatre director Lila Neugebauer, she will tell you how the film shoot for her first ever film, Causeway, seemed like a comedy of errors. They began shooting the film in summer 2019 in New Orleans. “We shot through bouts of flash flood and lightning and the heat waves,” she says—Neugebauer even got heat stroke. Then the weather struck again: “A hurricane stopped us in our tracks, and we had to evacuate.”
Then the pandemic shut down all film production. They didn’t finish filming Causeway until last year. Starring Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence in her long-awaited return to the screen, Causeway has finally been for streaming on Apple TV+. In entertainment, it’s normal for projects to just get scrapped following so much misfortune, but Neugerbauer said the team, including Lawrence who also produced the film, was determined to see it through. “This was a group of people who had a lot of skin in the game, for whom the personal stakes were very high,” says Neugebauer. “Having given that much to it in the summer of 2019, the idea of not completing this project felt unthinkable.”
Causeway stars Lawrence as a soldier, Lynsey, who suffers a traumatic brain injury while in Afghanistan. She goes home to New Orleans, and struggles to acclimate back into society. She becomes friends with a mechanic named James, played by Tony nominee Brian Tyree Henry, who is also suffering from his own PTSD due to a debilitating auto accident on the Causeway—a 24-mile bridge in Southern Louisiana.
Since its release, Causeway has gotten widespread praise, with many critics shouting out Henry’s performance (there’s even Oscar buzz for him).
“There’s this thing called trauma bonding that develops, where people are creating these new friendships that are all steeped in what trauma connects them. And that's how we get through the trauma together,” says Henry, last seen on Broadway in Lobby Hero. Henry’s character has an amputated leg while Lawrence’s character has PTSD.
For Henry, a large reason that many of the cast and creative team stuck with the film, despite the 18-month gap, was because it spoke to their own trauma. “I know that for a fact, in 2020, most of us have gone through our own PTSD. And most of us have gone through our own trauma,” he says. “Over the course of 2020, we were staying in contact with each other. And we had left this film longing for something.”
But that forced pause was actually a blessing in disguise—it allowed the team to look at the footage they had shot and rework the film. The original version of Causeway followed Lynsey in New Orleans, with flashbacks of her in Afghanistan, and James as one of many side characters. But after 2019, Neugebauer realized that the strongest footage wasn’t Lawrence in combat, but the quieter scenes between her and Henry.
“What had been captured on screen between Jen and Brian was remarkably special,” says Neugebauer. “We shot flashbacks for this movie set in Afghanistan, and that photography was beautiful, the performances were incredible. But it had become apparent to me that the most focused and the strongest version of this particular film was set exclusively in the present tense.”
So the Afghanistan footage was scrapped. When the film resumed shooting in 2021, Neugebauer focused the film on the relationship between Linsey and James, and how they help each other reconnect with the world after becoming isolated because of their trauma.
Henry welcomed the opportunity to give his character a backstory. He was aware of the optics of having a Black man act as a helper character to a White woman—especially in a city as racially segregated as New Orleans. “What I didn't want to happen is I didn't want us falling into a trope. What I didn't want happening is James being a character that just appeared in service to Lynsey,” he says.
So through improvisation and creating scenes with Lawrence and Neugebauer, Henry was able to show James in his home, in his neighborhood, and talking about his own troubled past. “The thing that is really amazing about New Orleans and the Black people of New Orleans is that there's resilience,” says Henry. “There's this tenacity and an understanding of what it's like to rebuild. And that I wanted to embody that in James.”
Henry also considers Causeway a rare portrayal of people who have disabilities but who aren’t defined by them. When the characters are together doing everyday things like getting a snow cone or swimming in a pool, he says, “they're no longer identified as just disabled people, or hurt people or broken people. They're just existing in space and time with each other.”
As a director that has specialized primarily in new plays (The Wolves by Sarah DeLappe, Everybody by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins), Neugebauer was used to creating new words on the spot with other people. And to Henry, who also got his professional start in the theatre, working on Causeway (after working on more action-heavy films such as Marvel’s Eternals and Bullet Train opposite Brad Pitt) was a way for him to scratch his theatre itch. A majority of Causeway is intimate, two-person scenes.
During the interview, Henry even slipped and called Causeway a play, saying, “Lila was very much about the collaboration of how to get in there with us as the actors, to build scenes and to build dialogue and to build tone—which is very rare. Lila really wanted us to play the play that way, to really develop characters that way.”
It also helps that Neugebauer cast the film with some of New York’s most well-known dramatic actors, such as Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell and Tony nominees Stephen McKinley Henderson and Linda Emond. “It was really joyful to be able to cast this entire film,” says Neugebauer. “The entire supporting cast—they're all people I knew from the New York theatre community.”
Has Neugebauer been able to convince Lawrence to do a play? “Jen has no interest in doing a play,” says the director with a chuckle.
But for his part, working on Causeway with New York theatre people has reminded Henry that he’s overdue for a return to the stage. “I don't know when. But it has to be the right thing,” he says emphatically. “You're doing eight shows a week, six days a week, with one day off. It's hard, but it's so fulfilling. And it is truly in the fiber of my being. So I can guarantee you at some point, yes, I will be on stage.”